The Hunt for MH370

Recommendation: I mean, you could, but I wouldn’t unless you have a burning interest in MH370

Where to read: This is airport reading

Read with: Many many beers

In brief: This is one of those books written to cash in on public curiosity. The saving grace is that Higgins had been covering the tragedy from the beginning so it does at least have the impression of thorough sourcing and informed analysis.

Higgins was the reporter at The Australian who covered the search operations for MH370 and the investigations into what happened. In the time reporting, he clearly developed both a firm view about what happened and a series of axes to grind, largely against hapless government officials who were less than forthcoming to his FOI and interview requests. The Hunt for MH370 provides ample opportunity to air his grievances. It largely focuses on the progress of the investigation and the search, including some of the controversies about location, debris that subsequently washed up on various coastlines and various kinds of evidence available.

While Higgins has a clear view about the murder-suicide explanation for the disappearance being the most plausible, brief sections on some of the other leading theories are interspersed throughout the book. The leading theories are:

  • murder-suicide: the pilot deliberately crashed the plane, redirecting it just past the air traffic control change over, turning off the transponders and communications devices and killing the passengers by suffocation by turning off the oxygen in the cabin. This suggestion is supported by both the fact that did not find the plane where they would have expected to on a ghost flight model and by the discovery that the pilot, who had a home flight simulator, appears to have practiced the exact flight path MH370 appears to have taken.
  • elopement by parachute: this is one of the more entertaining theories but here goes – the pilot had a history of extra-marital affairs and decided to elope with his mistress. To cover his tracks, he started the flight as usual, then doubled back, decreased speed and descended before parachuting out. The flight continued on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.
  • onboard fire: about 40 minutes in, the left side windshield heater caught fire, burning out the communications systems. They then accidentally turned off the satellite data unit trying to cut the power to the unit and directed the plane back towards Malaysia looking for a nearby airport. Getting out the fire extinguisher, one of them pulled their oxygen masks out of the socket, flooding the cockpit with oxygen and worsening the fire. The fire weakened the windshield and dislodged it, depressurising the cabin but extinguishing the fire. The surviving pilot returned to the cockpit sporadically and tried to steer the plane to safety, eventually giving up and directing the plane away from land and shipping lanes.
  • hijacking gone wrong: terrorists tried to hijack the plane but due to some combination of pilot and passenger resistance, they failed. In the struggle, however, the pilots were killed and the plane depressurised, leading to a ghost flight.
  • rapid decompression: in this scenario, there were faulty cabin door seals which broke and the aircraft decompressed. The pilots were affected, became hypoxic and flew in an unconventional manner until the oxygen ran out and the autopilot flew the plane until it ran out of fuel.

While he does cover these various theories, he regards murder-suicide most likely scenario and makes no bones about advocating for it. This is also the most controversial politically – conspiracy theories can be discounted and the ghost flight theory, which relies on some kind of mid-air emergency, avoids blame (other than to maybe Boeing) however murder-suicide would have undermined the credibility of Malaysian Airlines, the government carrier. So when Malaysia released its report into the incident, it went with a ghost flight theory (mind you, Tony Abbot, with characteristic tact, has since stated that the Malaysian Prime Minister told him within a week or two that it was the pilot).

Higgins has something of a nose for controversy and seems to be going out of his way to piss off as many government agencies as possible. I refer in particular to the spicy observation that while the Chinese ostensibly contributed to the search efforts in the Indian Ocean, in reality their ship spent almost all of its time in port off Perth undergoing a series of mysterious repairs, definitely not spying on the various military and military communications facilities in Perth and Fremantle. The Australian government is not spared either – the ATSB was apparently not particularly forthcoming with details about its investigation and battened down the hatches when faced with scrutiny about its search methodology (which was based on the ghost flight theory). Higgins is infuriatingly self-righteous about freedom of information and the press (which I agree with, but it fucking grates coming from a journo at The Australian) and I have a lot of sympathy for the poor public servants on the receiving end of his enquiries. Daniel O’Malley gets particularly attention, poor man, and suffice to say Higgins does not show any mercy for his fellow author.

Ultimately I am not sure this says anything one could not have gleaned from various other reporting or from YouTube but it is not a complete waste of time.

In a truly alarming postscript, Higgins has now also disappeared, albeit in non-suspicious circumstances.

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